have gained entry to the series these recordings were recipients
of the Penguin Guide’s ultimate accolade, a Rosette, an arbitrary
personal attribution by the critic reviewing the discs, indicating
a special “magic” or distinction over and above the normal
three star “excellent” grading. It is one of the facets of
the guide that has called forth most comment over the years … mainly
positive it is true but not always.
Kempff has without doubt been regarded as one of the great
pianists of the middle and latter part of the twentieth century.
Although not escaping the prevalent trend to be pigeon-holed
into particular repertoire … one thinks of Schubert, Schumann
and Beethoven for example ….his particular strength of pellucid
tone-colouring enhanced many works and much repertoire.
recorded the Beethoven concertos twice complete, in the 1950s
and early 1960s, as well as 78s of the last three concertos
in the late 1940s. On all three occasions the recording company
was the same, Deutsche Grammophon.
been acquainted for some years with the later (stereo) recordings
on cassette, I was particularly curious to hear these earlier
discs. The rather warm balance of 1962 - at least on tape
- is replaced here by a more reverberant acoustic with the
orchestra placed somewhat behind the piano image. From time
to time the woodwind recede a little too far for my comfort.
This happens for instance in the opening tutti of the 3rd concerto
(from around 1.00 to 1:20), although the string basses come
across strongly. Generally the piano image is decently caught,
again with a strong bass element, although now and again
the very top of the keyboard doesn’t sound absolutely clean.
Remember this is after all 1953.
to the performances … well as a broad-brush comment, I generally
enjoyed them all whilst admiring the earlier concertos more
than the later ones.
second, the earliest composition in the cycle, comes off
especially well. In the finale despite a fairly moderate
tempo there is a delightful, catch-me-if-you-can wink- in-the
eye feel, with which van Kempen and the orchestra fully engage.
I also found the first concerto equally impressive, the “deep
twilight” of the slow movement (Kempff’s words) especially
the third concerto I made an extensive comparison with the
later recording conducted by Ferdinand Leitner (1962), running
the CD and tape simultaneously and dipping backward and forward
between the two sources. In terms of the overall conception
- balance, structure and pacing - there appeared to be little
difference between the sessions. Just occasionally in tuttis
van Kempen appeared a little more trenchant, digging into
the rhythms and sculpting the profile more than Leitner.
Otherwise timings were very similar.
on; if I have to declare a favourite among the concertos
it would probably be the fourth, and here I wasn’t so impressed.
This was actually the first disc I sampled, and it was as
I was listening that I recalled both Kempff’s love of crafting
his own cadenzas, and his occasional propensity for introducing
them at inappropriate moments. Whilst the principle of a
pianist-inspired cadenza is not a bad thing, the insistence
on using one in the finale of this concerto definitely is.
Personally I find it adds nothing to the music, impeding
the flow in the movement toward the coda.
whilst focusing upon the last two concertos I must report
the want of a definite profile, (for lack of a better
word), to the performance from both the soloist and the conductor.
I really didn’t get the sense of the artists “digging into” the
music. Rhythms seemed to be smoothed, articulation to be
damped-down, a feature also, as it happens, in the later
recordings with Leitner.
Kempff and van Kempen with the discs by Barenboim and Klemperer
(EMI Great Recordings of the Century 0946 3 61525 2), which
I happened to have readily to hand, was fascinating. Taking
the finale of the fourth concerto again … the EMI performance
is markedly slower but there seemed to be much more going
on in the music, more detail emerging, frankly more interest.
All this is done without distorting the overall balance or
getting in the way of the magisterial structure of the music.
said I must report Kempff does triumph in the slow movement
of this work. Few can match that pellucid quality of tone.
A beautiful Orpheus indeed, although one could hope for more “wild
beasts” from the ranks of the BPO. Again the slight balance
problems don’t help them in this respect. As a real contrast
try the recording by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Sir Georg Solti
on Decca at this point, a triumph despite the desperately
unflattering instrument Ashkenazy is given.
as Kempff progressed through the concertos I began to miss
those qualities in Beethoven of struggle, awkwardness, adventurousness
and the sheer bumptiousness of the man. Whilst Kempff’s crystalline
beauty tells much of the story - Beethoven was after all
perfectly capable of writing limpidly beautiful music too
- it doesn’t encompass that other knotty, unpredictable but
ultimately necessary side of the composer’s character nearly
was only after coming to these conclusions that I read Edward
Greenfield’s notes to the set, during which he remarks: “…(Kempff’s)
first concentration is on refinement and clarity. He refuses
steadfastly to bludgeon, so that it is less the struggle
and stress of Beethoven’s message which comes over – at least
initially – than the Triumph, and above all the joy.”
take the point but I still feel those trenchant qualities
can be conveyed without bludgeoning. Recommended still, as
are the performances from 1962, but with the provisos outlined.
see also review by Jonathan Woolf
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